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Awful starts have contributed to the Yankees’ offensive malaise

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Scoreless opening frames ratchet up the stress of Yankees games.

Seattle Mariners v New York Yankees Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

On April 1, 2021, the Yankees kicked off their campaign at home against the Toronto Blue Jays. After Gerrit Cole threw a scoreless top half of the first inning, the Yankees’ fearsome lineup got its first chance to do damage. We did not know it at the time, but in a sign of things to come, DJ LeMahieu grounded out to first base and then the Aarons – Judge and Hicks – each struck out. No hits, no walks, no runs, no one left on base.

Fast forward several months, and while watching another scoreless initial inning from the Bombers, I posed the question to the other PSA writers: is it just me or has the Yanks’ offense been bowling shoe ugly in the first inning? As I went off to look up some splits, the number 89… as in an 89 wRC+ in the first frame this season… made its way into the conversation.

Meanwhile, the batting split was… 223/.328/.308. Yuck. Thankfully, the very next day the Bombers treated us to a three-run first inning in the rubber game against Kansas City, keyed by a bases-loaded single from Luke Voit.

But that blessed offensive outburst aside… the question remains: why has the Yankees offense been so bad in the first inning? Underperformances relative to projections by two-fifths of the top of the Opening Day lineup, DJ LeMahieu and Gleyber Torres, are a starting point to explain why club has struggled in the first stanza in 2021.

When FanGraphs published the 2021 ZIPS projections last November, anyone who looked at the forecasts for those two sluggers could be forgiven for thinking the Yankees would do damage early and often. At the top of the lineup, ZIPS reckoned that LeMahieu would put up a 119 wRC+ while getting on base at a .357 clip. Sure, those numbers represented a slide from his spectacular 2019 and 2020 seasons. Still, that kind of performance would be a heck of a table-setter.

Unfortunately, DJ’s season has been nowhere near that good. And to make matters worse, his first innings have underperformed even relative to his disappointing season writ large. The man who has led off for the Yankees in the vast majority of games this season has hit .253/.302/.333 in the opening frame. That represents a 78 tOPS+, or an OPS+ more than 20 percent worse than his overall mark for the season.

DJ’s first innings in 2021 contrast sharply with what he has done previously as a Yankee. In 2020, Le Machine was exactly that. How about .341/.426/.756 in 47 plate appearances? That’ll play. 2019 was not quite as stellar. But, .292/.356/.492 over 132 plate appearances still sets the table nicely. More 2019 and 2020 first inning DJ would go a long way to rectifying the Yankees’ allergy to scoring first stanza runs.

The man who hit fifth for the Yankees on Opening Day this year, Torres, has also severely underperformed compared to projections. In the idyllic world that the data spit out in November, the Yankees’ shortstop was going to hit 33 bombs. He was going to put up a 136 wRC+, and he was going to slug .526, with a .242 ISO. Alas, as Thanos once said, “reality is often disappointing.”

Torres’ season has been a near-disaster at the dish. But as bad as it has been, when he hits in the first inning, it’s even worse. Much, much worse. Torres’ sample size is much smaller than LeMahieu’s, but it is also considerably more hideous. And while the sample size is small, it represents the fourth-most plate appearances by a Yankee in the first inning in 2021.

In 42 first-inning plate appearances, Gleyber has hit .182/.341/.212. Yikes. That works out to a tOPS+ of 64. In a lost season at the plate, Torres’ first innings aren’t even two-thirds as good as his season as a whole. Sadly, he’s also been subpar in the second and third innings relative to his season. Torres has not, to this point at least, been an offensive sparkplug for the Yankees early in games.

Meanwhile, there have been some shining lights for the Yankees in first innings this season. Unfortunately, to paraphrase a popular South Park meme… aaaannnd they’re hurt. The two best Yankees in the first inning this season by OPS are catcher Gary Sánchez and third baseman Gio Urshela.

Sánchez has been a monster in admittedly limited first inning opportunities. In 29 plate appearances he has hit .320, slugged .640, and put up an OPS of 1.054. If you’re wondering, the tOPS+ is 168. In the middle of pretty darn good season, Gary has absolutely raked when he comes to the dish in the first.

Likewise for Gio. His 30 plate appearances have yielded a .357 batting average and a .974 OPS. His opening stanzas have been 55% better than his 2021 season as a whole. Unfortunately, their first innings are a moot point. Both are hurt, and with new additions Anthony Rizzo and Joey Gallo (though the former is admittedly also not available now), neither Gary nor Gio are likely to see many more first inning opportunities this season.

Speaking of our newest Bombers… they’ve done their best to continue to the proud tradition of not hitting in the first inning thus far. The two are a combined 0-for-10 in opening frames. Gallo, with strikeouts in his first four at-bats, did not put a ball in play in the first inning until he drove a ball into the outfield during the Field of Dreams game.

Something as volatile as first inning batting lines and statistics is almost certainly too complex to allow for the identification of one factor as “it.” Injuries – to Hicks early in the season and now to Gary and Gio who have thrived early in games – play a part. So too does the ongoing regression of Torres, who after his 2019 season I suspect we all had penciled in at the top of the Yankees order for years to come.

It is hard to escape the conclusion, though, after looking at the past three seasons, that DJ LeMahieu’s struggles in the first inning play a large part in the Yankees’ inability to frequently jump out to early leads. In 2020, when DJ was annihilating opposing pitching, the Yankees scored 42 first inning runs in 60 games. The previous season, with DJ hitting at a high level, the club plated 100 runs in 162 games – with 40 dingers. This season? 51 runs in 114 games and a paltry 15 round trippers.

As the club makes a second-half push for the playoffs, here’s hoping that those swinging the bats in the first inning – LeMahieu included – start doing consistent damage. More of those crooked numbers in the opening frame, like the club hung on Kansas City Wednesday, would go a long way to making Yankees games much less stressful.